The big smoke; Smoked salmon should be wild, mild and from Hackney

The salmon emerged at dawn and was dispatched in its crinkly overcoat of greaseproof paper to London's top hotels by breakfast the same day Photographs by Georgia Glyn-Smith
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Like the majority of people over the age of 15, I grew up believing that smoked salmon was one of the great luxuries in life, so the realisation, in adulthood, that it needn't be good came as something of a shock.

I once arrived in Montepulciano, in the early stages of pregnancy, with an insatiable craving for the stuff. Now, admittedly, no one in their right mind would go to Tuscany to eat smoked salmon, so perhaps the experience of the baby-pink, plasticised imitation I eventually located was to be expected.

Had I not already been addicted to the delectable real McCoy, I think I should have run a mile had I encountered it for a second time. Perhaps it was Norwegian farmed salmon - a pale shadow of the Scottish - and perhaps it had been cured in a modern, as opposed to a traditional, way.

Smoked salmon first came to Britain at the turn of the century, introduced by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought with them their love of curing fish in this fashion. The smokeries they set up in the East End of London dealt in a quality product: the salmon was wild, it emerged from the kiln at the crack of dawn and was dispatched in its crinkly overcoat of greaseproof paper and onto the carvery table of London's top hotels by breakfast or lunch-time the same day.

Scottish smoked salmon is a more recent development, following on from the salmon farming industry. It has only really grown up within the last 15 years, and, in so doing, has more or less obliterated the original artisanal smokers in the East End, who, in trying to compete with this new cheap product, went out of business.

With the odd exception: H Forman and Son is one such East End smoker that has survived, and, indeed, thrived in recent years, now in fourth- generation management under Lance Forman, who three years back chucked in his job as Peter Lilley's political adviser to join his father in the family business.

With clients such as the Dorchester, the Savoy, Fortnum & Mason and Fifth Floor Harvey Nichols, as well as other exclusives that don't like to be named, Forman has something of a stronghold on London's premium market. He attributes its survival to the way they met with the Scottish competition: "We didn't try to compete. As far as we were concerned, the quality of the Scottish product was inferior to ours." This confidence seems to have paid off.

My vision of an early smokery of raw brick walls and apprentices with sooty faces was dashed by the reality of the modern EC-approved unit - white coats and steel, except for the kiln where the salmon is smoked, which has the appearance of a submarine safe.

In its purest form, smoking is a simple operation, the important point being the quality of the fish in the first place. The traditional process is very much one of drying. First, the fish lies in salt, and loses up to 50 per cent of its weight as the water is drawn out. Next, it is dried in the kiln, then smoked - slowly, for about 24 hours - emerging fresh and crusty like a loaf from the oven at around 4am.

And what of modern methods? Well, let's start with "ultra modern": designed to cut down on the traditional weight-loss, the fish is injected with brine rather than laid in salt, so instead of losing weight it gains it. Moreover, the brine increases the shelf life, hence killing two birds with one stone. Added to that, it is not necessarily smoked but sprayed with liquid flavouring. This is definitely what I had in Montepulciano.

On the occasions when I want the very best, I seek out a fishmonger who sells wild salmon, traditionally smoked and fresh from the kiln, carved before your eyes from a side. Smoked wild salmon tastes of salmon in a way that farmed never does: it is almost buttery and melts in your mouth. This said, there is very good farmed smoked salmon on the market.

And for the in-between times, there are convenience vac-packs. The main loss here is in texture, as fluid is drawn out of the flesh, and a tendency to oiliness - but even the better smokers concede to modernity in this respect.

I concluded, many smoked salmon sandwiches later, that the best buys within supermarkets are those advertised as "mild oak smoked". "Traditional" on a packet, unfortunately, is no guarantee. I found such cures overwhelming as they'd quite often gone overboard on the smoking.

The price also seems to fluctuate according to the wood used for smoking, which is a bit of a gimmick. As long as it is a slow-burning wood, there's not much in it. More important is the time factor: long and slow is best, as opposed to blasted.

It seems strategic to avoid unlikely bargains which may have been subjected to cost-cutting methods. It may sound simple to suggest that you get what you pay for, but it's not far short of that.

Supermarket taste test

A selection of sliced smoked salmon in vacuum packs from the multiples were compared, and the following came out best. The very best, however, without a doubt, was from Forman's.

Tesco Scottish Smoked Salmon. Mild Oak Smoked. pounds 5.65 for 200g - a very nice mild cure and good texture.

Waitrose Scottish Smoked Wild Salmon from the River Tweed. pounds 3.89 for 100g - a good rounded flavour of the fish with a creamy texture.

Waitrose Scottish Smoked Salmon. Mild Oak Smoke. pounds 3.79 for 115g - a nice cure, a good balance of salt to smoke and a good texture.

Marks & Spencer Traditional Oak Smoked Scottish Salmon Slices. pounds 4.99 for 200g - fresh tasting fish and a good cure.

H Forman and Son. Genuine Wild Smoked Scottish Salmon (250g for pounds 9.95), and Superior Farmed Smoked Scottish Salmon (250g for pounds 7.75) available by mail-order (a complete list can be ordered from 0181-985 0378)